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Book Review: Eve – A Novel of the First Woman by Elissa Elliot

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The story of the world’s first couple – Adam and Eve – appears so early in the Bible that anyone attempting to read through God’s word for themselves gets at least that far. Indeed as a child, I never succeeded in reading through the entire Bible, the Old Testament books of history and genealogy were too dry for me to plow through at that age. However, I did succeed in reading through Genesis on a number of occasions as I took up the goal once again. It’s all over in the first four chapters, chapter five lists the genealogy from Noah until Adam and the next stop is the flood.

Over the past year two authors have tackled Eve’s perceptions of her life from first awakening to the fall and beyond. Tosca Lee released Havah: The Story of Eve in October of 2008, and this month Elissa Elliot debut's her first novel, Eve: A Novel of the First Woman. Though very little is said in scripture about the first woman and her offspring, she remains a figure of great allure. Being the mother of all living it’s no surprise that she continues to garner such detailed attention. I certainly couldn’t resist the opportunity to examine the first woman from a new angle by reading Eve.

Elliot’s re-imagination of Eve’s life is told through the eyes of three of her daughters and Eve herself; all in first person excepting the account of one daughter. Eve herself twines the threads of story together as her daughters visit with her on her death bed. Sharing their remembrances, their struggles and differences, their memories. All four women look back in time to the summer when Cain killed Abel, a deeply painful and life changing time for the family. Eve’s narrative moves between that summer, her time in the garden, and their early years as a family. Each voice is distinctive, particularly those of Aya, Eve’s crippled daughter, and Dara, her little girl.

The lush, rich writing of this new author entranced me. Eagerly, I gobbled up the first several chapters until serious flaws emerged that would have had me abandoning the book if I wasn’t bound to review it.

When an author lifts characters from the pages of scripture their lives often have large gaps, which the writer then fleshes in with cultural detail, imagined challenges, surroundings and details. To my mind, the information that is clear and present about the character in the Bible should be incorporated as carefully as possible, building a firm foundation upon which to add the flesh of the tale. It’s true that Elliott presents her work more as literary fiction than biblical fiction, but when we’re dealing with scripture, shifting the titles' designation does little to alter my personal standards. Unfortunately the skeleton upon which Elliot sets her evocative story is weak and wobbly, agreeing neither with scripture nor within itself.

While it isn’t within the scope of this review to point out each event in scripture that was not included or was misrepresented, a brief sampling follows. Eve did not receive her own name until after the fall; prior to that she and Adam were both called Adam. In the novel Eve experiences guilt both before and after eating the fruit of knowledge of good and evil; obviously this just doesn’t work. Simple explanations from scripture are bypassed in favour of complex imaginings from scholars as on the topic of conjugal relations between Eve and her husband. The Bible says that Adam knew her after they left the garden; based on the conjecture and traditions of others rather than the Word of God, Elliot shows this intimate act occurring prior to their expulsion.

Several other minor discrepancies are easily noted by those who will read the Genesis account carefully for themselves. However the deal-breaker was when the first couple encountered a pre-existing Sumerian society with a population much larger and technologies far further advanced than their own. In her footnotes Elliot notes Cain's fear that those who found him would seek to destroy him after his murder of Abel was discovered. Based upon this fear she then goes on to imagine another group of people, though where these people came from is beyond anyone’s understanding and indeed, is not explained within the novel itself, though Eve wonders where they fit in as well.

Unfortunately this is the Scopes “Monkey Trial” all over again. Adam and Eve had many children, their grand-children and great-grandchildren would soon represent a sizable group of people. Rather than accepting the simplest answer, Elliot introduces this misplaced group to lend additional conflict, tension and spiritual uncertainty into the lives of her characters.

The deep doctrinal discrepancies, the addition of other people into this period of human history brings, is addressed nowhere in the author’s afterword, where she explains some of the decisions she made in the novel. Romans 5 tells us that death did not enter the world until Adam sinned, and this group had clearly been breeding and dying for some time prior to encountering Adam, Eve and their children. I could go on, but I’ll limit myself here.

Without doubt Elliot is a strikingly talented new voice, creating emotionally gripping scenes, internal struggles and makes lavish use of rich descriptions. Her writing I love; her story I loathe.

Interested readers can find the updated FAQ’s that accompany Eve: A Novel of the First Woman at Elissa Elliott’s website.

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